As secretary of state under President Ulysses S. Grant, Hamilton Fish (1808-1893) settled the Alabama Claims and avoided war with Spain over the Cuban insurrection.
Hamilton Fish was born on Aug. 3, 1808, in New York City. His father was a socially prominent lawyer and Federalist; his mother was from the old Stuyvesant family. Fish graduated with highest honors from Columbia College in 1827 and was admitted to the bar in 1830. He entered politics as a Whig; he was elected to Congress in 1842 and to the governorship in 1848. His administration expanded the New York canal system and established a statewide framework for public education. In 1851 he was elected to the U.S. Senate. Conservative in background and patrician in taste, he joined the upstart Republican party only after it was clear that the Whig party was dead beyond revival.
Fish was not known nationally when President U.S. Grant appointed him secretary of state in 1869. Fish accepted reluctantly but found the job to his liking and remained for the entire two terms. His influence helped rescue Grant's presidency from total failure.
Three major foreign policy problems confronted Fish during his tenure. The first was Grant's effort to annex Santo Domingo. Cool toward the project, Fish nevertheless set about loyally to carry out his superior's wishes. A treaty of annexation was concluded, but Charles Sumner, chairman of the Senate's Committee on Foreign Relations, blocked it. Fish was unsuccessful in mediating the quarrel between Sumner and Grant. Grant's lieutenants in the Senate deposed Sumner from his chairmanship. The annexation was defeated, but Fish emerged from the imbroglio with honor.
Fish's efforts to settle the Alabama Claims were more successful. These claims were damages demanded by the United States from Great Britain for the latter's negligence during the Civil War in allowing Confederate cruisers, especially the Alabama, to be built and supplied in England, in violation of British neutrality. The cruisers destroyed scores of American freighters during the war and all but drove the U.S. merchant marine from the seas. In addition, the North demanded reparations for other British actions during the war. Senator Sumner said at one point that the claims could be satisfied only by ceding Canada to the United States. Britain had no intention of acceding to any such extreme demands, and Fish intimated through diplomatic channels that a less extravagant settlement would be acceptable. A joint high commission met in Washington under Fish's watchful eye and negotiated the Treaty of Washington (1871), which provided for the arbitration of the Alabama Claims and of minor issues between the United States and Canada. The arbitration tribunal awarded the United States $15,500,000 in damages.
A Cuban insurrection was in process when Fish took office. He talked Grant out of issuing a recognition of rebel belligerency, which might have led to a conflict with Spain, and he tried unsuccessfully to work out a peace settlement between Spain and the revolutionaries. In 1873 the Virginius, a rebel-owned steamer with illegal American registry engaged in carrying arms, was captured by the Spanish, and 53 crewmen and passengers, including several Americans, were executed as pirates. The incident could have led to war, but again Fish cool-headedly negotiated a settlement, which included indemnities for the families of dead Americans and a Spanish promise (never fulfilled) to punish the officer responsible for the executions.
Fish retired from public life in 1877 and busied himself in civic and social affairs. He died in New York on Sept. 6, 1893.
Amos E. Corning's Hamilton Fish (1918) has been largely superseded by Allan Nevins's rich and massive Hamilton Fish: The Inner History of the Grant Administration (1936; rev. ed. 1957), based on Fish's letters and diary. Also valuable is the essay on Fish by Joseph Fuller in volume 7 of Samuel Flagg Bemis, ed., American Secretaries of State and Their Diplomacy (1929).
Fish, Hamilton, Memoir of an American patriot, Washington, D.C.: Regnery Gateway; Lanham, MD: Distributed by National Book Network, 1991.